Monday, September 26, 2016

Vignettes by Me, on Themes Picked Randomly: Day 25

Theme 714: Sneeze

Two cats wearing boxing gloves were boxing.

“This is ridiculous,” Marvin Hinky remarked.

Clio Wayzgoose, whom he had been dating for three weeks, looked back at him and rolled her eyes. She returned her attention to the projector screen and wondered if she would have done better to invite one of her Film in History classmates to this exhibition instead.

The boxing cats up on the screen belonged to Professor Welton’s Cat Circus. The bout had been captured by Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope in 1894. Welton’s gleeful, round face could be seen bobbing behind the miniature boxing ring as he cruelly manipulated the two American shorthairs via harnesses into swatting at one another with the padded bulbs tied over their front paws.

The film played in silence from a reproduction Kinetoscope cabinet fitted with a modern 35mm projector that looped a digitally restored print. Since the lens grommet for the housing was rather low to the ground, the ten wooden slat folding chairs had to be arranged on either side of it. They had been set out in the small viewing room in order to provide the flavor of an early cinema parlor. Clio stood less than a meter from the screen, to the left of the lightstream, to better watch the strobing flicker and mottled grain of the images. In the chair next to the projector, Marvin continued to fret over the notion of boxing cats. When the film ended and the automated return mechanism in the housing switched and hummed in preparation for the next showing, Clio and Marvin walked back out to the North Hall Gallery.  

The mock-up cinema parlor with the pseudo-Kinetoscope screening was part of the gallery’s Early Film Exhibition. In addition to this viewing room, the collection of Edison’s Kinetoscope experiments dominated a furlong of wall space as the premier attraction in the North Hall Gallery exhibition, which consisted primarily of early cinematic paper prints. With Marvin in tow, Clio paced along this length, lingering over the glass cases that displayed bromide paper prints of film strips. The cells on the strips showed gradually morphing iterations of boy jugglers, electrocuted elephants, seminary pillow fighters, and mustachioed kissers. 

Eventually the couple came to the prize piece in the collection, the first film of any kind to be registered in the national archive: the five second sequence known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze. The forty five small rectangular cells depicting the snuff snorting and subsequent sternutation of the smartly attired, horseshoe mustache-bearing Ott were mounted on salmon cardstock. Along the lower edge of the cardstock, the words “Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze” were scrawled in ink, followed by the date, January 4th, 1894.

Marvin leaned close to Clio, brushing against her warm back, and questioned, “Why did they put them on paper?”

“For copyright,” Clio began to explain, taking Marvin’s arm. “Back then, you couldn’t—”

“Do you know the story of Fred Ott?” interjected a wiry, graveolent old man whose tobacco stained whiskers drooped over his mouth. He had intruded himself by poking up between the couple.

“What?” Clio sputtered, surprised.

“Fred Ott, he died the day after they made this. Do you know how?” The man lowered his head and proceeded to answer his own question. “Well, Fred, he always had his little snuff tin with him, see, even though the snuff made him sneeze. But Fred was so excited to be put on film, he misplaced his snuff after they finished shooting, left it next to a cylinder of phenidone-metol powder. Somehow, some of the powder fell into Fred’s tin.” 

The man shifted his stare from Clio to Marvin and back again before continuing. An hour later, Fred found the tin. He was so relieved that he inhaled a pinch without noticing the white flecks in it. Soon he started to wheeze and choke. The assistants all just thought he was up to his usual foolery. They stood around in a circle, laughing. Even grumpy old Mr. Edison had to smile when he came out of his office to see what the fuss was about. But the laughing stopped when they saw blood streaming down Fred’s face. He fell over, convulsing, and died within a minute. So, that sneeze they captured right there? That was his last one ever.” The man nodded gravely to the print and walked away in silence.

“Wow, is that true?” wondered Marvin, looking agape in the peculiar man’s direction.

“No,” Clio stated flatly. She pointed to the historical note affixed to the wall and indicated the line where Fred Ott’s year of death was listed as 1936.

“Oh,” Marvin said quietly, pursing his lips.

As Clio resumed her inspection of the print, she caught a lingering whiff of the peculiar man’s odor and let out an abrupt sneeze: “Achee!”

Explanatory Postscript: When I say “picked randomly,” I mean picked from a Master List that I’ve compiled of 999 themes intended to serve as creative writing prompts (from the following sources: 501 Writing Prompts; 25 Creative Writing Prompts; Examples of Themes; List of Themes; 365 Creative Writing Prompts; 100 Themes Challenge Writing Prompts; List of Journal Ideas; and Top 10 Types of Story Themes). To pick a theme at random, I roll three ten-sided dice (the first for the hundreds place digit, the second for the tens, and the third for the singles) and find the theme under the number I have rolled. If I hit a theme I have already written on, I roll again. If I ever roll 000, I make up a theme. The Master List is a secret, so don’t ask for it.

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